The chief executive of Bolton Council has conceded that a controversial £300,000 grant to a personal injury law firm should ‘probably not’ have been made under its emergency powers procedure.
Bolton Council was asked to defend the award of the grant before opposition councillors and members of the public at a corporate and external issues scrutiny meeting held on 11 January.
The grant was signed off under the council’s emergency powers procedure. It was intended for Asons to refurbish its town centre offices. However, the firm’s accounts show report a dispute with the tax authorities also quantified at £300,000 and a loss of more than £1m for the year to May 2015.
There is no evidence linking the £300,000 dispute referred to in the accounts with the same sum handed to Asons for the building development work.
During the meeting Bolton Council's chief executive Margaret Asquith said: ‘With a lot of hindsight this probably would have been better if officers had taken this to the next executive member meeting rather than [using] emergency powers.
‘If we do not encourage businesses and maintain businesses in Bolton we will not have the income to continue to run services for some very vulnerable people. It is absolutely the case that emergency powers will be used in the future and they are set out in this council’s constitution for very specific purposes.’
Councillor David Greenhalgh, leader of the Conservative opposition in Bolton, told the Gazette: ‘Finally an admission from Bolton Council’s chief executive that the use of emergency powers to grant £300,000 to Asons Solicitors was “probably” not the right way to have awarded the grant.
‘And a further admission that meetings behind closed doors took place that guaranteed the grant pending State Aid approval; a guarantee of £300,000 of public money given a nod and a wink without going through any official council process. This is a disgraceful abuse of power.’
Asked if any councillors or council officers would face further scrutiny over the grant, the council declined to comment.
Before Christmas Bolton Council leader Labour councillor Cliff Morris defied calls to resign over the grant, insisting he had done nothing wrong.
Morris has also previously called for an independent audit to be carried out by the council, a move he said would provide full transparency.